Alcibiades, Socrates, and Timon on Humility
Finn Charest is the winner of the 2023 Living Greek in Greece High School Essay Contest.
I sometimes wonder why the Oracle of Delphi didn’t warn Athens about Alcibiades. If the Athenians had benefited from the practical advice of a later oracle—the Oracle of Omaha—they might have avoided a lot of trouble in the fifth century BCE:
“If you hire somebody without integrity,” Warren Buffett famously observed, “you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”
By that standard, Alcibiades was the worst “hire” in the history of the ancient world. And it wasn’t a one-time lapse, as Alcibiades’ track record of treachery did little to discourage potential patrons. By the time he was finished, Alcibiades had betrayed the Athenians for the Spartans, betrayed the Spartans for the Persians, then—to bring things full circle—betrayed the Persians for the Athenians. In short:
- Exiled from Athens following his support for a disastrous invasion of Sicily and public charges of impiety, Alcibiades advised the Spartans to build a permanent fort within sight of Athens, cutting the city off from its silver mines and croplands and inspiring several cities of the Delian League to revolt.
- After wearing out his welcome with the Spartans by having an affair with the wife of a Spartan king, Alcibiades fled to Persia. He repaid the hospitality of the Spartans by advising the satrap to withhold naval and financial support from their Spartan allies.
- Alcibiades then spearheaded a conspiracy to overthrow Athenian democracy with sympathetic oligarchs who would permit his return from exile. But the Persian leader Tissaphernes took to heart Alcibiades’ earlier advice to let the Athenians and Spartans wear themselves down without interference, and the coup failed for lack of Persian support.
- One of the targets of the coup—the democrat Thrasybulus—reinstated Alcibiades in the hopes that he could help win the Persians over from Sparta. The Athenians elected Alcibiades as general largely on the strength of his influence with the Persians, and Alcibiades used the detachment of ships under his command to (unsuccessfully) try to win over Tissaphernes by ostentatiously displaying his influence over the Athenians.
- After a few military successes, Alcibiades was welcomed back to Athens. But once Cyrus the Younger resumed subsidies to the Spartan navy and the Spartans found a capable naval commander in Lysander, Alcibiades was finally defeated at Notium. Things must have been bad, since Alcibiades sent himself into exile this time.
By most accounts, Alcibiades had ability and energy in abundance–it requires considerable energy just to read about the shifting events and allegiances of Alcibiades’ life. Diodorus of Sicily, the first century BC historian, noted that Alcibiades was “in spirit brilliant and intent upon great enterprises.” And there is no denying that Alcibiades had signal talents: for sensing (and staying one step ahead of) danger, for manipulating the ambitions and fears of his patrons, and for presenting himself as the fulcrum that could shift their fortunes (typically by exaggerating his influence or abilities). To solve the riddle of Alcibiades, I would summon Alcibiades himself, his one-time teacher Socrates, and Timon—the misanthrope who supported Alcibiades because he correctly foresaw that Alcibiades would be the ruin of Athens.
My questions for Alcibiades: Did your scheming amount to anything in the end? Do you consider yourself a hero or a villain? Do you consider yourself virtuous?
My questions for Socrates: For all your wisdom, didn’t you recognize Alcibiades as a threat to Athens? Do you think his career supports the charge that you corrupted the youth of Athens? Why do you think Timon could recognize his true character when you could not? Do you think this might evidence a gap in your philosophy?
My questions for Timon: How did you know that Alcibiades would be the ruin of Athens? Was it something in his character? Or was it something in the character of Athens itself?
I think all these questions would lead to a larger question that I would pose to all three men: Where was the humility? For Socrates, in particular, I would ask how he would classify the collection of habits and dispositions that we would call humility, whether he himself understood humility to be a virtue and what he taught Alcibiades on this subject. To us, lack of humility seems like the obvious deficiency in Alcibiades’ character. But many commentators, including Alasdair MacIntyre, have noted that humility was not considered a particular virtue in classical civilization. The ancient Greek word aidos is sometimes translated as “modesty,” but just as often as “shame.” The scholar Sophie Grace Chappell argues that the classical virtues of sophrosyne (balanced-ness), dikaiosyne (justice), and hosiotes (piety), together with the Archaic Greek emphasis on the practical dangers of hubris, combined to create something akin to humility. But the consensus seems to be that there was nothing like humility as a virtue for its own sake.
More questions for Timon: Was Alcibiades an anomaly, or the inevitable product of the Athens of his time–the vainglorious product of a vainglorious civilization that could no longer keep apace with its ambitions?
The classical scholar Thomas Habinek described what Alcibiades represented to the people of Athens: “the institution of the city talking to—and loving—itself.” There is evidence that the selfish ambition of Alcibiades was not unrepresentative of Athenians of his time: when Alcibiades offered to enlist the support of the Thracians prior to the Battle of Aegospotami in exchange for a share in the command (and a chance for redemption), Diodorus describes their very Alcibiades-like response: “[b]ut the generals of the Athenians, considering that in case of defeat the blame would attach to them and that in case of success all men would attribute it to Alcibiades[,]” declined. Is it possible that Timon wasn’t just an unthinking misanthrope, but a sensitive moralist who recognized a repugnant gap in the Greek system of ethics–namely, humility?
In Humility Among the Ancient Greeks, Sophie Grace Chappell argues that Nietsche completely misunderstood Socrates’ role vis-à-vis the sophists: Socrates, not the sophists, was the defender of traditional Greek values. In her view, the sophist worldview of self-interest and “might makes right” represented a departure—or maybe just the universal default in the absence of an accepted system of ethics—and Socrates was trying to defend principled traditions in a world of growing skepticism and self-interest. If this interpretation is correct, Alcibiades must have found the sophists more convincing. “Instead of holding that he ought himself to conform with the laws of the state,” Andocides wrote of Alcibiades, “he expects you to conform with his own way of life".
To me, classical civilization feels more familiar—and more modern—than civilizations that held virtues like humility in higher esteem. Late medieval Europe, for example, though nearer in time, seems much more foreign and otherworldly. The modern philosopher David Hume dismissed humility as a “monkish virtue,” which seems close to how most modern people would characterize it if they were being honest. But if lack of humility and excessive ambition made Athens vulnerable to the schemes of people like Alcibiades, perhaps Alcibiades’, Socrates’ and Timon’s responses to these questions would reveal something about the direction of our own civilization.
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